Robert Hale, Papa Pilgrim, says he'll plead no contest to incest

After more than a year in jail awaiting trial on charges of rape, assault and incest, the man known as Papa Pilgrim says he is ready to plead no contest and accept punishment.

Robert Hale, the reclusive patriarch of a large family from McCarthy, is scheduled to go on trial in Glennallen starting Jan. 16. The 30 felony charges involve one of his daughters as victim and reach back seven years.

But in a request filed in court Thursday, Hale's public defender said Hale is willing to plead no contest to most of the charges in exchange for a 14-year prison sentence. Hale, 65 and in poor health, has been in jail since his arrest in October 2005.

No court hearing has been scheduled yet to accept the plea, but lawyers on both sides said they expect a prompt hearing. Hale can change his mind at any time before the hearing. Even if the court accepts such a plea, a defendant can withdraw it under certain circumstances up until the final sentence is handed down.

Still, the plea agreement marks a big turnaround for the case, which would have required many of Hale's 15 children and his wife to testify against him.

"It's a very fair resolution. It would very likely be his death sentence," said Palmer assistant district attorney Robert Payne. After preparing his case against Hale for a year, Payne called the sudden change of heart by the defendant "shocking."

Hale has diabetes and has received extensive medical treatment at Cook Inlet Pre-Trial Facility for infections. He turned down a recent request for an interview after speaking with his lawyer, Palmer public defender Lee de Grazia.

De Grazia said Thursday the plea agreement was negotiated with the prosecutor. She said she couldn't answer questions about Hale's decision until after the plea had been entered in front of Superior Court Judge Donald Hopwood, who was scheduled to preside over the trial.

Hale had lived with his family on a remote mining site inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park since 2002, four years after coming to Alaska from New Mexico. The family, known as the Pilgrims, has engaged in a high-profile fight with the federal government over access to their land, touched off by Papa Pilgrim's use of a bulldozer to clear an abandoned mining road. Papa Pilgrim said God directed him to open the road.

The Pilgrims lived a cut-off life adhering to rules of Scripture as interpreted by Papa. He presented himself as a pious and humble servant of the Lord, describing his homespun clan as "the epitome of a wilderness family."

The Pilgrims won support for their politics, their colorful appearance and their bluegrass-flavored gospel performances. They also stirred anger and resentment from families who tried to help them and neighbors in McCarthy.

Several months before the charges against Hale were filed, the older Hale children moved away from the family's isolated homestead. Several young Hale men visited their McCarthy neighbors to apologize for the "pain and misunderstandings" they'd caused locally.

According to Alaska State Troopers investigators, the family was unaware of the long history of sexual assault and incest outlined in the charges against Hale. An unusually violent incident in January 2005 helped bring his activities to light, they said.

Hale left the family homestead himself in mid-September that year, a week after family members first contacted Alaska State Troopers. He managed to slip away from state troopers who flew to McCarthy in a helicopter, and he was later arrested after a 12-day manhunt.

Hale has agreed to plead no-contest to 10 counts of first-degree sexual assault, and multiple counts of incest and coercion. As part of the agreement filed Thursday, the state will drop a kidnapping charge and single counts of assault in the first-, second- and third-degree.

By Tom Kizzia

Anchorage Daily News